JOEL FEIGIN: Music for Chamber Orchestra

Performed by Yael Weiss, piano, John Savourin, bass-baritone, Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, Kirk Trevor, Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, Misha Rachlevsky

Toccata Classics
2021

The music on this album tells a story that for the most part I cannot understand. But perhaps the context in which it was composed will help to some extent. I was born in New York in 1951, the son of a doctor and a pianist, whose parents had emigrated from Russia and Romania in fear of the pogroms. In our home, music was a source of consolation – one of my earliest memories is crawling between the music stands while my mother and her friends were playing the Brahms Piano Quintet.

While I was in high school, my mother brought back a recording of the Bach B minor Mass from her job teaching choruses in the public-school system. Curious, I put on the first LP. I heard three great cries for mercy by the whole chorus: Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy. The weight of all the suffering of the world was in those cries but absolutely no fear. My life was changed: I knew that it was possible to be in the midst of immense suffering with no fear, no ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’.1 Somewhere, there was a path I needed to find and then follow as best I could.

That path took me to Columbia College, and later to Juilliard, where I studied with Roger Sessions and Renée Longy; during the summer I worked with Nadia Boulanger at Fontainebleau. After my graduation, I was awarded a Mellon Fellowship at Cornell University, and it was there that my first opera, Mysteries of Eleusis, was premiered, with the support of the Guggenheim Foundation. Several years later, during a Senior Fulbright Fellowship, this work was produced again, by the Moscow Conservatoire, and later at the Russian-American Opera Festival.

It is clear to me now that my two operas (with a third now in the works) have delineated distinct phases of my compositional path. At Juilliard in the 1970s, composers were expected to write in twelve-tone, or at least atonal, styles. Although I had been brought up on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classics, I also loved much of the music of the Second Viennese School, and my music used a somewhat Berg-like free-atonal style. At the end of Mysteries, I couldn’t resist a couple of climactic triads, which were duly noticed and condemned by my colleagues. Undeterred, I continued my triadic adventures, writing both tonal and atonal pieces, as well as pieces that used both styles at will.2

Mosaic in Two Panels, heard here in a live performance by Misha Rachlevsky and the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin (now known as the Russian String Orchestra), was written at this time and uses both sound-worlds. The change that came over my music during this time was largely an effort to widen the expressive possibilities of my work. For me, I could embody anguish, very powerfully, in an exclusively atonal style, but more peaceful and joyful expression proved less readily available.

The next stage of my work began after my year in Russia (1988–89), when I started my second opera, Twelfth Night, based on Shakespeare’s comedy. The chamber-orchestra version was premiered by Long Leaf Opera in Durham, North Carolina, and the work was produced twice in the 2014–15 season, in Chicago and in California. The Two Songs from Twelfth Night heard on this recording are settings of Feste’s songs ‘O Mistress Mine’ and ‘Come Away, Come Away, Death’. In embodying this magical, lyrical comedy about the infinite varieties of love, I found myself gravitating towards a very triadic world.

Afterwards, it seemed natural to explore aspects of modernism that I had not previously exploited, such as extended instrumental techniques. Both extended techniques and pure triads find a place in the string-orchestra work heard on this album, Surging Seas, which also features the extended silences that have become increasingly prominent in all my recent work. Their presence reflects the influence of John Cage, but above all it emerged from my long-term practice of Zen Buddhism, which started in the late 1980s. If nothing is excluded, nothing is rejected either – another recent work on this album, Aviv: Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra, is quite tonal, juxtaposing two keys a tritone apart, and finds a use for a few extended silences as well.

This album comes at a particularly meaningful time for me, along with my retirement from teaching and the opening of the Joel Feigin Collection (which holds all my manuscripts, sketches and drafts, as well as letters, teaching materials, material from my studies with Boulanger, and so on) at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I am deeply appreciative of Toccata Classics and the wonderful performers represented on this album. Reviewing these pieces has led me to reflect on the last three decades of work as I look forward to my third opera, Outcast at the Gate, based on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. After that, who knows?

I cannot end without mentioning my students at Cornell, Manhattan School of Music and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Teaching has always been very important for me, and I feel deep gratitude for all that my students have taught me over the years. Words cannot express all I owe to my wife, the Schoenberg scholar, Severine Neff.